‘Our Town’ moves through Patapsco Female Institute

October 4, 2011

The Patapsco Female Institute sits atop the highest hill in Ellicott City. The stone and granite building has had many identities — as a girls’ school and boarding house from 1837 to 1891, then as a hotel, a convalescence home during both world wars, and a private residence and a theater in between (it was never, as its name might suggest, a prison).

It makes sense then that Patapsco is serving as the stage for Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of “Our Town,” a play about how the things we remember are all around us, a rumination on the passage of time.

“ ‘Our Town’ is really a play about memories: Are they real? Are they ghosts? What are they?” said Ian Gallanar, Chesapeake’s founding artistic director and director of the play, which opens Friday. “We’re performing in and around a building that’s . . . the memory of a building.”

Yes, in and around. “Our Town” is Chesapeake’s fourth movable production, one in which each scene occurs in a different place. The audience will walk from room to room, around the grounds of Patapsco, and stand throughout the performance, exposed to the elements (Patapsco is a preserved, stabilized ruin; it has no roof, windows or doors). The building is large enough to accommodate 150 people, the maximum audience size for the two-hour, 15-minute show.

Gallanar knows what people expect to do at the theater: “Sit down in a chair, the lights will go out, you better shut up and enjoy the play.” But that experience interests him less than this traveling technique, one that puts the motion in emotion.

“It’s gimmicky to say it’s 5-D theater,” he said. “But you can smell the actors, you hear the crickets, you hear the sound of gravel under people’s feet. It really is a sensory experience. You create an atmosphere that surrounds people.”

“Our Town” runs Friday to Oct. 30 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3655 Church Rd., Ellicott City. Call 410-313-8661 or go to www.chesapeakeshake speare.com.

The horror, the horror

Active Cultures Theatre has mined Maryland legends to bring audiences “Hellspawn,” three one-act plays based on local lore, opening Oct. 13.

“To Hell and Back” tells the story of the alleged demonic possession upon which “The Exorcist” was based. “Rare Medium Well Done,” written by The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, focuses on a girl who, having spent years preparing to apply to Brown University, is possessed by the devil on the day of her college admission interview.

“Never Have I Ever,” written by founders Jessica Burgess and Mary Resing, artistic director, was inspired by memories of what had frightened the women at sleepovers. “It’s all about power games and identity and secrets,” Resing said.

The play is named for a game in which participants announce something they’ve never done, and anyone who has done it declares herself by putting down a finger — once all 10 are down, you lose — or, in the college version, you drink.

“I think we all fear loss of control,” Resing said. “We all go through life thinking that if we do everything we’re supposed to do, things will work out as they should. And life doesn’t really work that way. . . . [These plays are] about how, all of a sudden, things can totally go to hell.”

“Hellspawn” runs Oct. 13-22 at Riverdale Park Town Center, 4650 Queensbury Rd., Riverdale Park, and Oct. 27-30 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 301-526-9921 or go to www.activecultures.org.

Shake shack

Rorschach Theatre’s “After the Quake” got a PR boost from nature when its first day of rehearsals in August coincided with the Washington area’s cameo on the Richter scale. The play, opening Monday, is based on a short-story collection of the same name by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author who wrote the work after the Kobe, Japan, earthquake in 1995. Co-Artistic Director Randy Baker, a self-proclaimed “massive fan” of Murakami, spoke about the story behind the show and how “After the Quake” is perched in a sweet spot between fact and fantasy.

Plot points: “The writer is coming to heal a girl haunted by images of the earthquake, and he learns to heal himself and deal with his emotions about the girl’s mother, who is his unrequited love, while he’s working on a fantastical story about the earthquake.”

What’s it all about? These are “people who live in a country where disaster is part of your DNA. This deals with how one overcomes damages, both natural and personal, through human relationships. The only way we get through terrible times is together, through storytelling. Storytelling has a transformative power.”

Damage control: “I’d say the big relevance has to do with how much we’re still dealing with these disasters. We’re not prepared for Japan; we’re not prepared for Haiti. The play is really about how we move on.”

On the edge: “A big part of how my wife [set designer Debra Kim Sivigny] and I envisioned the play is that the earthquake isn’t in the center. . . . The earthquake is on the periphery, with people at the center. So the show is in the round, with newspaper clippings of ‘Have you seen this person?’ up on the walls. . . . You can see them out of the corner of your eye. There are mobiles of detritus hanging, and when an actor needs a prop, they reach up and grab it from the mobile.”

The “Phantom Tollbooth”: “We [at Rorschach] are always interested in the spot where the commonplace meets the magical.”

“After the Quake” runs Monday to Nov. 6 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or go to www.rorschach theatre.com.

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